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Defence strategy fills gaps but misses holes

April 18, 2024 | Jennifer Parker

We need to move towards a wider conversation around national security, mobilisation, and be clear on the vulnerability in our capabilities until the late 2030s.

Image: Defence Minister Richard Marles at the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra discussing the first National Defense Strategy and attendant Integrated Investment Program 17 April 2024.

The launch of the National Defence Strategy and integrated investment program 12 months on from the Defence Strategic Review hits all the key themes.

In many ways, the 2024 National Defence Strategy represents where Australia needed to be in 2020, unlike the Force Structure Plan it does seek to focus the Australian Defence Force and provides funding to support the necessary changes including acceleration of capabilities.

Analysts will pull apart the capability and funding aspects over the coming days. At face value, the National Defence Strategy achieves the defence and strategy elements of what it says on the tin, but there are three fundamental issues at the national level.

The evolution of warfare and interference short of warfare in the political, economic, cyber and information spheres demonstrates that to defend Australia’s national interests beyond coercion, we must go beyond a defence strategy, and move towards a national security strategy.

Conflicts in Europe, the Middle East and our own experience with economic coercion and cyberattacks demonstrate that we need to be able to co-ordinate all elements of national power to affect a strategy of deterrence by denial.

This is not only a nice to have, it is a must as we see countries such as China undertaking what in many instances could be considered, political, economic, information and cyber warfare that directly impinge on Australia’s national interests.

The National Defence Strategy also avoids the use of the term mobilisation. Confining the issue of preparedness, to purely a military sense.

The 2020 Force Structure Plan and the terms of reference for the Defence Strategic Review highlighted the need for mobilisation to be considered. Not only mobilisation of the Australian Defence Force, but more broadly a discussion of national mobilisation.

Are we putting the architecture, mechanisms and processes in place to be in a position to mobilise all necessary elements of Australian society should the increasing strategic risk be realised? The National Defence Strategy, much like the public-facing Defence Strategic Review is glaringly quiet on these points.

The third and perhaps most stark issue with the National Defence Strategy and its associated integrated investment program is the period of risk from now until the late 2020s to early 2030s.

The government is entirely correct in its assertion that it is seeking to reshape the Australian Defence Force into a more lethal, agile force tailored towards a strategy of deterrence by denial. But the key elements of this force, whether it be ships, submarines or the underlying infrastructure will not be in place for some time.

In some ways, at the point in which Australia finds itself, this may be unavoidable, as previously mentioned, many of the elements of the National Defence Strategy would have been perfectly appropriate for 2020.

This is a quandary not of the government’s making, it is a clear result of the negligence of successive governments and, at times, a disinterested public, but it is a vulnerability that we must now acknowledge and work hard to utilise Australia’s other elements of national power to mitigate.

Despite these significant issues, there is much to like about the National Defence Strategy on face value and its associated integrated investment program from a defence perspective.

It builds upon the Defence Strategic Review and announcements relating to the AUKUS submarine optimal pathway and surface combatant fleet expansion. In many ways, it seeks to deliver an enhanced, and more lethal, Australian Defence Force to respond to the deteriorating strategic circumstances.

It is supported by additional funds, $5.7 billion in the forward estimates and predictions of $50 billion over the next 10 years, addressing the criticism that the Defence Strategic Review recommendations lacked funding.

Fleshing out the Defence Strategic Review’s recommendation of a strategy of deterrence by denial, the National Defence Strategy seeks to bolster this approach. Highlighting that to protect Australia’s national interests from coercion in a dramatically deteriorating global order, the Australian Defence Force needs power projection capabilities including long-range strike, cyber and maritime capabilities which the integrated investment program supports with significant investment over the next 10 years.

What is not exactly clear, is the full spectrum of projects that have been cut.

What is not exactly clear, is the full spectrum of projects that have been cut, delayed or rescoped to support the prioritised integrated investment program. Many of the cuts announced today were announced in the Defence Strategic Review.

Navy’s future joint support ship has been cancelled. This capability would have addressed some of the Australian Defence Force’s significant shortfalls in sealift capability to get the Army and its equipment overseas, although likely mitigated by Army’s acquisition of its new littoral vessels. But it does highlight a fundamental shortfall in the ability to the Navy’s auxiliary force, with the cancellation of the joint support ship, the Navy has only two auxiliary vessels to replenish its growing surface fleet with fuel, ammunition, and food at sea.

While there are still significant holes in the Australia Defence Force’s capability to resource the strategy of deterrence by denial, to the government’s credit, the National Defence Strategy does go some way to addressing these gaps, and finally is supported by the resources to do so. But we need to move beyond the National Defence Strategy, towards a wider conversation around national security, mobilisation and be clear on the period of vulnerability from now until the late 2030s in our defence capabilities.

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